As Major League Baseball's steroid scandal widened to include the sport's most prolific active home run hitter, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Friday that he will introduce legislation imposing drug-testing standards on professional athletes if baseball players and owners do not adopt a stringent crackdown on steroids by January.
In the wake of the disclosure that San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds used substances provided him by a trainer who has been indicted in a steroid distribution ring, McCain, in an interview, gave baseball until next month to adopt the more stringent drug testing requirements of minor league baseball or face federal action.
"Major league baseball players and owners should meet immediately to enact the standards that apply to the minor leagues, and if they don't, I will have to introduce legislation that says professional sports will have minimum standards for testing," McCain said after returning from a European trip late yesterday. "I'll give them until January, and then I'll introduce legislation."
Under the threat of federal intervention, Major League Baseball officials promised rapid action to impose stringent drug testing.
Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig brought up the steroid issue on a conference call with the 30 owners of the major league franchises Friday, a call originally scheduled to approve the relocation of the Montreal franchise to Washington. According to two sources familiar with the phone discussion, Selig reiterated what he had said Thursday in Washington -- that baseball needs a tougher steroid policy, and that he intends to have something new in place by a January owners' meetings.
Selig told team owners during Friday's phone call that the league and the players' union had been making progress on a new, tougher drug policy when the latest drug scandal erupted. Selig said if the sport did not have a new policy in time for spring training it may take more aggressive public action, although he was not specific.
Selig urged the players' union Friday to advance a policy aimed at abolishing the use of illegal drugs in baseball.
"I am aware the Major League Baseball Players Association is having its annual meeting with its executive board of player representatives next week," Selig said in a statement issued yesterday. "I urge the players and their association to emerge from this meeting ready to join me in adopting a new, stronger drug testing policy modeled after our minor league program that will once and for all rid the game of the scourge of illegal drugs."
In grand jury testimony that was leaked this week, New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi admitted to three years of steroid use, and Bonds admitted using similar substances, although he said he did not think they were steroids.
It is unlikely that drug testing would have prevented the most recent scandal. Bonds and Giambi used substances that were not detectable by standard Olympic drug tests, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report on their federal grand jury testimony.
McCain's threat to impose drug-testing standards on professional athletes -- Congress has the authority under the U.S. Constitution's interstate commerce clause -- significantly escalates a long-simmering battle between the federal government and the national pastime over drug use.
President Bush, in January's State of the Union address, called on owners, unions and players "to get tough and to get rid of steroids now." But White House efforts to organize a conference on the matter between players and owners fell apart after the baseball's players' union objected.
In March, McCain held hearings on the subject, and told Selig and MLBPA Director Donald Fehr that their sport "is about to become a fraud" because of questions over the accomplishments of some of its leading stars. The Senate passed a nonbinding resolution in April calling on MLB "to tighten its testing program."
Since then, Selig and other top officials had been working with the union for months on a new drug testing policy. McCain said yesterday that he doubts further hearings would be of use because the problem and the solution are already obvious.
Despite the interest of Bush, a former baseball team owner, the White House took a less aggressive stance Friday. John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that he had no plans to contact baseball owners or player representatives and that he did not see the need for Washington to act.
"That's not the solution we think is necessary," he said, confident that baseball owners and players' representatives could reach agreement. "People know what to do. Over the last year there's been enormous movement."
That sentiment is not universal on Capitol Hill, where congressional aides said that they are concerned that the players' union will become increasingly opposed to making a concession on drug testing the closer it gets to baseball's 2006 collective bargaining talks. Congressional aides said that without union agreement, Selig's only option short of federal action would be to order a lockout of players at the start of next season.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who was instrumental in negotiating the collective bargaining agreement with the union two years ago, said baseball is moving toward the elimination of drugs from the game.
"Progress is being made, and I think an agreement will be generated that will effectively eliminate the use of these drugs from the game of baseball," Angelos said. "In the very near future, the problem will be resolved through an effective testing procedure with appropriate penalties resulting for those who violate the ban.
"In light of the hearings before Congress, the position that senators [Byron] Dorgan [D-N.D.] and McCain took, and the other senators, substantial progress has been made," Angelos said.
League insiders said the mood at baseball's Park Avenue headquarters Friday was one of disappointment and frustration that the scandal is widening even as talks continue.
"We have had ongoing discussions with the MLBPA [the players' association] about a stronger drug policy," said Rob Manfred, MLB executive vice president for labor relations and human resources. "I have had discussions with them since yesterday. They are active and ongoing. Our goal remains the way the commissioner has articulated it: to get to the kind of policy we have in the minor leagues."
The minor league policy is far more comprehensive and aggressive than the major leagues'. The minor league drug policy bans more substances than the majors and calls for more frequent testing of players, three random tests per year, than the MLB policy. Any minor league player who tests positive for steroids is placed on an "administrative track" and is subject to discipline that automatically becomes more severe with each positive test. A player who tests positive for steroids five times is permanently suspended from minor league baseball.
The major league policy, by contrast, tests players only once a season, never in the offseason, and has weak disciplinary provisions. First-time offenders are placed into a treatment program without a fine or suspension. Second-time offenders face a 15-day suspension without pay, or up to a $10,000 fine. Five-time offenders are suspended one year or fined up to $100,000. The average player salary last season was around $2.5 million.
Baseball reported a year ago that as many as 84 of its 1,200 players tested positive for steroid use, providing the first official accounting of the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports and triggering automatic testing -- with penalties attached -- this past season. The discovery that 5 percent to 7 percent of 1,438 steroid tests were positive for steroids automatically triggered mandatory testing of every player this past season. The testing was anonymous, so the players who tested positive could not be identified. That process is ongoing.
A spokesman for the players' association, Greg Bouris, said the union had no comment.
A source of concern for the union seems to be whether drug testing of players leads to legal action by law enforcement authorities.
"What if baseball does its drug testing, finds illegal use of steroids and then a player is suspended," asked one MLB insider who asked not be identified. "Then what happens? Do you get a visit from someone with a badge? The union objection comes from what happens when somebody is found guilty."
Most law enforcement agencies who investigate drug cases tend to be more concerned with prosecuting drug distributors rather than individual users.